NBC’s Lead Upfront Spot in Question

May 29, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Christopher Lisotta and Jon Lafayette

NBC, which for decades has kicked off the traditional broadcast network upfront presentations, is considering abdicating the leadoff spot.

In light of NBC’s recent and rapid reversal of fortune, the network’s entertainment president, Kevin Reilly, told reporters on a conference call last Thursday that he’s “discussing” a change in the network’s announcement date for next year’s upfronts.

Mr. Reilly made the comment on a call in which he elaborated on the extensive changes he is making to the fall lineup. NBC last week was forced to change its schedule after the networks that followed it at the upfronts stacked tough competition against the shows NBC is counting on to pull it up from the cellar.

Mr. Reilly is revising NBC’s schedule on five nights and shifting the drama “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” from Thursday at 9 p.m. to Monday at 10 p.m.

Bowing out of the lead spot would represent a huge concession on the part of former market leader NBC and mark the end of an era for the network.

And it very well may happen. For at least two decades NBC has presented first among the Big 4 during upfront week, the four-day marathon in which broadcast network executives gather in New York to pitch their fall schedules to advertisers. Traditionally, NBC was followed by ABC, CBS and then Fox. Over the years, The WB and UPN (this year The CW and MyNetworkTV instead) and Spanish-language broadcasters Telemundo and Univision joined the week’s schedule between the bigger networks’ presentations.

Jon Nesvig, president of sales for Fox Broadcasting, said in an interview last week that he is open to the idea of Fox no longer presenting last among the networks for upfronts.

“I haven’t talked to our programming people, but I wouldn’t mind shaking it up,” Mr. Nesvig said.

While the impact of the presentation order on ad sales is nebulous, going first served NBC well from a scheduling and momentum standpoint when it was No. 1 in adults 18 to 49 among the broadcast networks. Back then, NBC set the course for the week both in terms of ad sales and scheduling moves. Its challengers followed NBC’s lead.

But with NBC ranked No. 4 in the sought-after demo for two seasons in a row, it is at a competitive disadvantage in assembling its schedule. Since the network’s executives have no knowledge at that point of their competitors’ lineups, they’re hamstrung as far as making counterpunch scheduling moves.

“”We are normally in the dark by going first,”” Mr. Reilly said, when he suggested NBC might move its traditional Monday upfront presentation to later in the week.

There is no law that says NBC has to go first, said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group.

“Tradition is a good thing, but practicality has to come into play,” Mr. Carroll said. “Now they have to decide what’s in their best interest, and they have to decide if it helps them with advertisers.” ABC, which might want to move up its upfront announcement to better reflect its newfound ratings and programming strengths, is already booked for 2007 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, where it held its presentation this year and in 2005.

The upfronts started many decades ago as casual and intimate gatherings in New York, but over the past 20 years have evolved into choreographed theatrical events that accommodate thousands of attendees. Booking a space that can accommodate the throngs of people, plus handle the networks’ staging and media requirements, is tricky and generally requires a year of planning.

Just ask Fox, which this year moved to The Armory to accommodate a bigger audience only to find the space was muggy, uncomfortable and difficult to access, resulting in many annoyed upfront attendees. “Usually it was the No. 1 network that went first, and now we should be first, I guess,” Fox’s Mr. Nesvig said. “The arguments are you get people when they’re fresh, and so something sticks in their minds, or does it all become a blur at the end of the week. This time around they were tired and cranky, and then we made them tireder and crankier.

“In fact, I’d love to just draw straws every year and do it, but you can’t do it because of the venues,” he added.

Sharing venues such as Avery Fisher Hall doesn’t work because the production staff running the upfronts “need 36 to 48 hours to set up, and then they need 24 hours after to strike the set,” Mr. Nesvig said. “And if you’re going to do them all the same week, you can’t really do that.”

NBC might want to just accept its fate as the traditional upfront starter, said Jason Maltby, president and co-executive director for national TV at media firm MindShare.

“It will never be perfect,” Mr. Maltby said of the upfront schedule. “People are always going to have to adjust somewhat, and that’s just life.”

The 2006 upfront season was unusual because networks moved so many big shows, Mr. Maltby said. “That doesn’t happen every year,” he said, “and besides, once we get to December the schedules are not going to remotely resemble what they look like now.”

Finding a time later in the week is more difficult than it has been now that advertisers are paying increased attention to Spanish-language broadcasters Univision and Telemundo, whose upfront presentations are becoming more high-profile.

“It’s an extremely busy week,” Mr. Carroll said.

Morphing Into ‘Showbiz’

Instead of moving its presentation to another day, NBC may decide to alter the whole venture to reflect the changing nature of the upfronts, veteran network executive Fred Silverman said. Mr. Silverman remains the only person to have held the top programming jobs at ABC, CBS and NBC.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they do away with all or part of it next year,” he said. When Mr. Silverman was running CBS in the 1970s, the network sales department would block out a day when advertisers would come to the network’s midtown broadcast center and screen all the pilots.

Back then, CBS would present pilots and go over the season’s programming strategy for only a few hundred people, one veteran ad buyer said.

“If you didn’t make the list, you were pissed,” the buyer said. “It was a very exclusive event, but it was a very full day. You watched the pilots and they explained the schedule.”

“I don’t think there was a magic to a day,” said Bob Blackmore, who was executive VP of sales for NBC in the ’70s and ’80s. “It was just a question of whoever had the guts to be ready and who could announce a date first. You had to put so many pieces together, and then the other networks had to fit in around it because they couldn’t do it the same day.”

“One year we thought of a breakfast at the Waldorf,” Mr. Blackmore said. “That was really a great deal because you got people in the morning. They have a cup of coffee and everyone’s really alert and really watching. It was a great time to have it. Personally, I wouldn’t have changed that.”

The presentations began to expand to full-fledged productions in the 1980s, after then-NBC chief Brandon Tartikoff “started to try to showbiz it up,” Mr. Nesvig said. This was before NBC started its ascension to the top network spot and it had little else to show advertisers,

he said.

“Now it’s become as much of a press function,” he said.

Mr. Silverman described today’s upfront as a “three-ring circus,” alluding to the speeches, clip packages and performances that have come to define the upfronts. In the current atmosphere, Mr. Silverman questioned whether the presentations are for advertisers, agents, Wall Street or the media.

“I’m not sure who the primary constituent is,” Mr. Silverman said. “It’s all different masters there.”

With the broadcast industry already going through so much transition, a discussion on redefining how and when networks deal with upfronts is overdue, said Marc Goldstein, president and CEO of MindShare North America.

“Do you think that the
presentations will take the same form next year that they have taken for the past umpteen years?” Mr. Goldstein asked. “We are in a period of substantial change in our industry, therefore, why wouldn’t things potentially change?”

For details of NBC’s new schedule, see “NBC Rejiggers Fall Schedule” at TVWeek.com.